As laid out in the first-ever Evan Yeong Literary Awards, the purpose of these blog posts has been to provide a retrospective of the books read in the past year. Typically these have been written and published in January, but here we are. Better late than never, as I always say.
This is the first of these awards to be written during my relatively new career in publishing. While I wouldn’t say I have a strong understanding of the ins and outs of what’s hot in the industry, I certainly have a healthier grasp of things, especially compared to past years when I had none whatsoever.
The other notable difference is that the list of books read has been censored in part, due to a number of the books having been unsolicited manuscripts that I was asked to read during my time as an Editorial Intern at Penguin Random House Canada. A handful were also unpublished manuscripts or ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) and have been marked as such. You can check out a full list [with the exact dates of when I read each one] at this link.
ALMOST AS COMPLEX AS THEIR NAMESAKE
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
Those who aren’t as familiar with the works of C.S. Lewis should know that “Aslan” is the name of the Judeo-Christian-God-stand-in of that author’s Narnia series. The lion is a complex figure, embodying a dichotomy of a being that is “isn’t safe” while also “good”. Aslan himself is a likewise complicated man, having been raised Muslim, converted to Christianity in his teens, then back to Islam, a faith he continues to practice, and did during the writing of this book. A fascinating fact for both believers and nonbelievers alike is his statement that whether or not he was the son of God, the Nazarene definitively performed miracles.
SHOULD HAVE WON THE 2017 GILLER PRIZE
Brother by David Chariandy
One of many short, powerful works of fiction that I read this year, Brother is as unpretentious and beautiful a novel as you’re likely to find, and a worthy contender for Canada’s loftiest and most coveted literary prize. Shining a spotlight on Scarborough in the 90s, an area that I have (recently) shamefully joked about only “technically being Toronto”, this book would have served as a reminder of the real life stories that are overlooked and underheard.
The actual winner of the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize was Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, which I read the ARC of. Brother was longlisted.
SHOULD HAVE WON THE 2018 GILLER PRIZE
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim
When I was first told about this time travel love story I was dubious at best. What could Lim do that Niffenegger (as well as so many countless others) hadn’t already done? To start with, she cuts the fat and simplifies the often convoluted worldbuilding to the point that readers won’t stop to wonder how or why things make sense, they simply do. Having captured their full attention she then reaches into their chests to grab their hearts and break them. (Read as unpublished manuscript)
The actual winner of the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. An Ocean of Minutes was shortlisted.
Blink by Ted Dekker
Ted Dekker burst onto the scene as a Christian author with a strong narrative voice and a confident grasp of genre fiction. In this novel a young former prodigy gains abilities that appear to mirror Nicolas Cage’s in the 2007 flick Next (which was in turn based on a 1954 novella by Phillip K. Dick). The action is fast-paced, bordering on frenetic, and the stakes are high, but it’s when Dekker uses the novel to support his own religious beliefs that things get iffy. While I’m a Christian myself, it’s when his apologetics turn to shaming Muslims and deriding Islam that turned what was once the smile I wore when I first read this over a decade ago into a shamefaced wince.
REFUTES THE IDEA THAT AMERICA IS THE BEST AT EVERYTHING
Obasan by Joy Kogawa
America holds a number of first place medals when ranking itself among other countries, but there’s one in particular that I’d like to reaward to their longtime northern ally. Although the harsh truth that the United Stated created internment camps for their citizens of Japanese heritage during World War II is far from widely known, even less is discussed about Canada’s own participation in such practices. It’s been argued by some that the way that Japanese-Canadians were treated by the True North (Strong and Free) was ultimately much worse, resulting in their overall much lower population here. Kogawa’s novel is frustrating in the way that all recounted injustices are, but more so in its revelation that the sins of our neighbours are so often our very own.
NOT FOR ME (BUT HOPEFULLY FOR SOMEONE)
The Incest Diary by Anonymous
It’s important for us to believe that we’re not alone. This is especially true for victims of trauma, as knowing that others have shared in similar experiences can be the first step on the path to recovery. While it’s undoubtedly true that the issue of sexual abuse by family members is altogether too common (even a single incident would be too much) the graphic, to-the-point-of-pornographic, way this memoir was written made it difficult for me to find the redeeming factor in this retelling of the author’s life. I dearly hope that there are survivors out there who take what they need to from this, but am just as worried that there are others who might read it for entirely different, less virtuous reasons.
MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE
Malagash by Joey Comeau
This isn’t to say that I ever had any doubts about Comeau, at one point most well-known for his work as the writer behind the webcomic A Softer World, and his abilities as an author. In fact, one of his novels made it onto the 2014 Evan Yeong Literary Awards list! While always maintaining a strong sentimental centre, the outstanding qualities of his work have ranged from the more lurid (Lockpick Pornography) to the bleakly and vulgarly introspective (Overqualified). With Malagash readers are presented with a quiet tale of loss that proves to be the clearest distillation of the authentic emotional writing he’s been mastering to date.
BEST ANTI-DRUG PSA
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
Yet another author with a 2014 award-winner, five years after An Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan turns the focus towards flora. By following four domesticated species though the centuries he chronicles not only how we’ve had an impact on plants, but how they have in turn changed our own existence as part of this ecosystem. It’s in the section where Pollan delves into marijuana that things go off the rails. These pages (likely purposefully) mirror the effects of the drug in their hazy, speculative musings. It’s a perfect example of a man veering out of his own lanes of science and history and not quite being able to match the speed limit and traffic laws required for philosophy.
Horns by Joe Hill
The titular growths on his forehead are of rising concern to protagonist Ig Parrish, but even more troubling is the fact that the people in his life can’t help from confessing their deepest (and darkest) secrets to him. A sordid affair or two are to be expected, but the atrociousness of the admissions soon begins to border on the comical. Isn’t there a single person in this town whose greatest sin is that they once started a petty rumour about a friend? A compelling device in its own right, Hill doubles down on his characters’ depravity to the point of meaninglessness and, at best, mirth.
MOST SELF-CONSCIOUS SUBWAY READ
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Far from being a Fifty Shades of Grey, the half-naked model on the front cover of this book nonetheless made me want to sit with it flat on my lap, away from judging eyes. That said, it’s not as if fellow passengers being aware of its actual contents would protect me from scrutiny. Starring a passel of pageant contestants stranded on a desert island, Bray’s novel is a true, unabashed satire. I never knew what to expect from one moment to the next, only that it would be biting and bombastic, a no-holds-barred approach to literature that turned out to be impossible not to enjoy.
PROOF THAT THESE STORIES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN AROUND
The Case of the One-Penny Orange by E. V. Cunningham
Writing under a pseudonym, this is one of Howard Fast’s seven books which make up the Masao Masuto Mysteries series. Literature from decades past rarely holds positive portrayals of people of colour, let alone awards them centre stage, yet this mystery offers both. The protagonist is not only a well-rounded and human character, his cultural differences, spanning from his religious beliefs to his identity as an Asian man, are portrayed in a way that never veers into xenophobia or exposes poor research. For as much as Hollywood has transformed into a remake factory, it’s tales like this that are never considered for adaptation.
As mentioned above a full list of books read can be seen here. To further break down that number, however, I have a few stats for your consideration:
(The Books of the Bible New Testament was the New Testament formatted without verses or chapter breaks, and with the books “naturally” ordered; as such it has been omitted from the stats below.)
- Number of Books Read: 59
- Books by White/Male Authors/Editors: 26
- Books by Everyone Else: 31
- Books by Non-White Authors: 18
- Books by Female Authors: 24 (objectively counted as a female author, it may also worth noting that Charlie Jane Anders is a trans woman)
- Books by Both of the Above: 11
- Books by Canadian Authors/Editors: 21
- Fiction Books: 48
- Full-Length Novels: 44
- Short Story Collections: 4
- YA Books Read: 2
- Children’s Books Read: 0
- Non-Fiction Books: 9
- Memoir/Autobiography: 2
- Essay Collections: 3
- Books That Have Received Film/TV Adaptations: 11 (although not included, at the time of this writing The End We Start From is to be adapted by Sunnymarch and Hera Pictures, and Little Fires Everywhere will be released as an eight-episode miniseries on Hulu)
- Above Adaptations That I’ve Seen: 1
sI Read The Most Of: N/A